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There's No Democratic Culture in America -- We Live in an Era of Imposed Amnesia

Getting to the bottom of the electoral sweep that just put the most egregious Republican Party candidates back in power.

We live in an age in which punitive justice and a theater of cruelty have become the defining elements of a mainstream cultural apparatus that trades in historical and social amnesia.

How else to explain the electoral sweep that just put the most egregious Republican Party candidates back in power?

These are the people who gave us Katrina, made torture a state policy, promoted racial McCarthyism, celebrated immigrant bashing, pushed the country into two disastrous wars, built more prisons than schools, bankrupted the public treasury, celebrated ignorance over scientific evidence ("half of new Congressmen do not believe in global warming" ) (1) and promoted the merging of corporate and political power. For the public to forget so quickly the legacy of the injustices, widespread corruption and moral abyss created by this group (along with a select number of conservative democrats) points to serious issues with the pedagogical conditions and cultural apparatuses that made the return of the living dead possible. The moral, political and memory void that enabled this vengeful and punishing historical moment reached its shameful apogee by allowing the pathetic George W. Bush to reappear with a 44 percent popularity rating and a book tour touting his memoirs - the ultimate purpose of which is to erase any vestige of historical consciousness and make truth yet another casualty of the social amnesia that has come to characterize the American century.

Imposed amnesia is the modus operandi of the current moment. Not only is historical memory now sacrificed to the spectacles of consumerism, celebrity culture, hyped-up violence and a market-driven obsession with the self, but the very formative culture that makes compassion, justice and an engaged citizenry foundational to democracy has been erased from the language of mainstream politics and the diverse cultural apparatuses that support it. Unbridled individualism along with the gospel of profit and unchecked competition undermine both the importance of democratic public spheres and the necessity for a language that talks about shared responsibilities, the public good and the meaning of a just society. Politics is now defined through a language that divorces the ethical imagination from any sense of our ethical responsibilities. Consequently, it becomes increasingly more difficult to connect politics with the importance of what Tony Judt and Zygmunt Bauman have called the social question - with its emphasis on defining society in terms of public values, the common good, spiritual well-being and "an imagined totality woven of reciprocal dependence, commitment and solidarity." (2)

Enforced forgetting subordinates public time to corporate time and eliminates those public spheres that might challenge it. Corporate time demands that we never stop moving - it is time organized around increased production, the speeding up of labor time and it embodies a resistance to any space or mode of time that would allow us to think critically about how time might be reconfigured to expand and deepen a democratic polity. Against this notion of corporate time with its construction of imposed forgetting, we need a language that embraces what might be called public time - a mode of time and space that resists the rapid-fire demand to keep moving, keep buying and stop thinking. Public time is not driven by the necessity to consume or lose oneself in the never-ending spectacles of sound-byte driven talk shows, reality television and celebrity culture. On the contrary, it registers a different understanding of time, rooted in the necessity to provide conditions in which people can slow down enough to be thoughtful, exercise informed judgments and engage in social relations that affirm solidarity, the public good and the need to struggle collectively to implement the promise of a democratic society. According to democratic theorist Cornelius Castoriadis, public time represents "the emergence of a dimension where the collectivity can inspect its own past as the result of its own actions and where an indeterminate future opens up as domain for its activities." (3) For Castoriadis, public time puts into question established institutions and dominant authority. Rather than maintaining a passive attitude toward power, public time demands and encourages forms of political agency based on a passion for self-governing, actions informed by critical judgment and a commitment to linking social responsibility and social transformation. Public time legitimates those pedagogical practices that provide the basis for a culture of questioning, one that provides the knowledge, skills and social practices that encourage an opportunity for resistance, a space of translation and a proliferation of discourses. Public time unsettles common sense and disturbs authority while encouraging critical and responsible leadership. As Roger Simon observes, public time "presents the question of the social - not as a space for the articulation of pre-formed visions through which to mobilize action, but as the movement in which the very question of the possibility of democracy becomes the frame within which a necessary radical learning (and questioning) is enabled." (4) Put differently, public time affirms a politics without guarantees and a notion of the social that is open and contingent. Public time provides a conception of democracy that is never complete and determinate, but constantly open to different understandings of the contingency of its decisions, mechanisms of exclusions and operations of power. (5) At its best, public time renders governmental power explicit, and in so doing, it rejects the language of ritualistic adherence and the abrogation of the conditions necessary for the assumption of basic rights and freedoms. Moreover, public time considers civic education the basis, if not essential dimension, of justice because it provides the conditions for individuals to develop the skills, knowledge and passions to talk back to power while simultaneously constructing forms of political agency that encourage public responsibility through active participation in the very process of governing.

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